Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Why ISIS is Islamic, and Why it Matters

Author: 420 Times
Created: 19 November, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
11 min read

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, the world is once against debating how to understand and respond to such tragedies. French President Francois Hollande has said that the country is now "at war" with ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, and France has bombed ISIS targets in Syria for consecutive days.

Yet despite this military action, French and American leaders have still not articulated what exactly it is they are fighting. Indeed, in recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry and the French president have referred to ISIS as "Daesh" (the group's acronym in Arabic) so as to expunge any reference to or association with Islam (at least, to Western ears).

Yet while some are arguing about what to call this organization, others are debating whether military intervention will be effective, if not counterproductive. Some argue that attacking ISIS will foster the kind of hatred and chaos that spawned these groups in the first place and thus create more terrorists.

Fortunately, the answers to these two questions are intertwined. Figuring out what ISIS is helps us to understand what it wants – what its motivations and goals are – and thus how (and why) to defeat it.

ISIS is Islamic

On purely strategic and diplomatic grounds, one can understand the reluctance of officials around the world to attach "Islamic" to the kind of terrorism that took place in Paris. Such language could serve as an impediment to building a coalition with Muslim-majority countries to defeat ISIS. Moreover, there is a legitimate fear that calling the terrorism "Islamic" could cause bigots to attack peaceful Muslims (or even people who merely look like Muslims).

But what is true is what matters most, and what is true sometimes grates against comforting and anodyne platitudes. One must therefore ask, "Is ISIS's behavior truly Islamic?"

First, one could look to the name. At the very least, ISIS considers itself to be Islamic. This alone is enough to invalidate the claim that ISIS has "nothing to do with Islam."

Many argue that the peacefulness of a majority of the world's Muslims and their rejection of ISIS is proof that the organization represents a "perversion" of Islam, but this is intellectually unserious. The essential nature of a religion is not determined by what a plurality or majority of its adherents believe or do: if that were the case, then one could argue that the Catholicism does not oppose contraception simply because a majority of Catholic women (at least in the United States) use or condone using birth control.

To determine whether ISIS is truly Islamic therefore requires exploring to what extent the group adheres to Islamic doctrine. In this regard, ISIS is very much Islamic.

ISIS and the Caliphate

Consider, for instance, its mission to establish a religious state. This mandate clearly arises out of Islam's revered texts (the Quran and the hadith) and the tafsir of respected commentators. Verse 4:59 of the Quran declares, "Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and those of you who are in authority; and if ye have a dispute concerning any matter, refer it to Allah and the messenger if ye are (in truth) believers in Allah and the Last Day." Moreover, verse 18:26 says that Allah "maketh none to share in His government."

The Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir (1301-1373) interpreted these statements to mean that "The Most High rejects those who, turning away from Allah’s decrees, which encompass all good and forbid all evil, stray toward the opinions, whims, and traditions of men without support from the shari’a of Allah."

He then added – clearly endorsing theocracy over democracy, that "whosoever does this...is an infidel who needs to be fought till he submits to the Commandment of Allah and his Messenger, so that the reigns in evil for the shortest amount of time."

ISIS thus clearly believes, on firm religious grounds, that Muslims have a duty to establish the caliphate and to rebel against rulers who do not enact shari'a – an injunction that was also clearly articulated by the influential and respected Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). It is for this reason that ISIS (and its Islamist and jihadist allies) have tried to overthrow secular or insufficiently religious governments in countries that once made up the vast caliphate.

ISIS's fidelity to Islamic holy texts is also seen in its literalist application of shari'a, including in places like its capital in Raqqa, Syria. There, it enacts the hudud punishments – those that are meted out in accordance with the specifications of the Quran, such as amputation for thievery and punishment for adultery. In accordance with the opinions of some members of the salaf (those who lived in the earliest years after Islam's founding), homosexuals in ISIS's territory are thrown from the tops of tall buildings and then stoned.

Even ISIS's capture, ransoming, and beheading of non-believers is supported by the Quran. Verse 47:4 reads, "Now when ye meet in battle those who disbelieve, then it is smiting of the necks until, when ye have routed them, then making fast of bonds; and afterward either grace or ransom till the war lay down its burdens. That (is the ordinance)."

This shows that not only is ISIS's criminal justice system rooted in Islamic doctrine, so too is its war-making and terrorism.

ISIS, Jihad, and Terrorism

Take, for instance, the notion of offensive jihad. This concept stipulates that Muslims have a duty not only to establish a religious state but to expand its boundaries. Verse 8:39, for example, reads, "And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah altogether and everywhere; but if they cease, verily Allah doth see all that they do." Chapter 9 of the Quran also contains several injunctions to spread the faith through violence.

Many of these orders come from the latest chapters of the Quran (chronologically speaking) and therefore abrogate or replace the older, more peaceful verses that came from Muhammad’s time in Mecca (before his migration to Medina, where he began his life as a political and military leader).

This concept of offensive jihad explains ISIS's treatment of the Yazidis of Iraq in 2014, its territorial expansion across Syria and Iraq, its subsequent establishment of provinces across the region, and its alleged plans to conquer new territory in Africa, Europe, and Asia.

Consider as well the notion of defensive jihad, which justifies retaliation against foreign attack. It is clearly this concept that explains ISIS's burning alive a captured Jordanian pilot, its purported takedown of a Russian airliner, and the recent attacks in Paris.

Yet some argue that such attacks on civilians are not justified in Islam, a point made by President Obama himself. While not a mainstream belief in Islam, there is certainly some religious justification for it. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's new leader, has cited Muhammad's use of catapults in his siege on the fortified city of Ta'if as a sign that killing civilians during war is justified "under some circumstances." When questioned as to why he was using catapults that would kill women and children, Muhammad is said to have replied, "They are from among them ."

As for terrorism, "terror" is a word that the Quran itself uses. Verse 8:60 implores fighters to "strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies." Today, some mainstream Islamic scholars endorse terrorism against noncombatants, including the highly influential Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.

Even suicide terrorism is condoned by some scholars, since Muhammad had praised martyrdom and encouraged his followers to fight despite overwhelming odds, citing the blessings that come to those who die in battle. Verse 4:74 reads, "Let those fight in the cause of Allah Who sell the life of this world for the hereafter. To him who fighteth in the cause of Allah, – whether he is slain or gets victory – Soon shall We give him a reward of great (value)."

In short, while ISIS is unpopular among the world's Muslim population, ISIS is clearly devoted to realizing a harsh yet canonically defensible interpretation of Islamic holy texts. Its establishment of a caliphate, its enactment of shari'a, its perpetration of offensive and defensive warfare, and its use of suicide terrorism are all justified by a close reading of the Quran, the hadith, and respected commentaries.

Why It Matters

While at first these might seem like a purely academic debate, determining whether ISIS is truly Islamic has important strategic ramifications. Consider the argument that terrorism against the West is motivated by politics rather than by religion (an argument popular among the anti-war left and anti-war right).

Religion or Politics?

This argument is based on a false distinction. As should be evident by now, al-Qaeda's and ISIS's worldview is entirely religious. Indeed, in their interpretation of Islam, there is no difference between religion and politics. These groups' superficially political grievances are all ultimately grounded in theological concerns.

Whether it is the stationing of American troops on sacred Saudi soil, the liberation of East Timor from Muslim Indonesia, the support of secular rulers in the region, or the fight against these groups themselves, every one of these seemingly political grievances is borne out of a religious belief that jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have a duty to resurrect the caliphate, expands its borders, and battle anyone who opposes them.

Understanding the essentially religious nature of ISIS's war-making and terrorism is essential for rebutting the argument that often comes packaged with the first – namely, that the West has only itself to blame for being the victims of such terrorist attacks. By meddling in the Middle East, the argument goes, the U.S. has generated "blowback" for its interventions.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there is truth in this argument: countries like Iceland are terror-free because of their abstinence from the fight against ISIS. It is certainly arguable that if France, Russia, and the United States withdrew militarily from the region and ceased bombing ISIS, they would likely be spared terrorist attacks.

Yet acknowledging the connection between these countries' foreign policy and their vulnerability to terrorist attacks is merely descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, the fact that such military involvement increases the likelihood of experiencing a terrorist attack says nothing about whether or not these countries are justified in bombing ISIS.

There are nearly exactly two ways to respond to this kind of jihadist imperialism: either fight these groups, knowing that reprisals may occur, or adopt a policy of non-intervention – as figures like Ron Paul and Justin Raimondo on the right and Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald on the left – have recommended.

Against Non-interventionism

But what many in the anti-war crowd have failed to understand, from 9/11 to the present day, is that groups like al-Qaeda are not anti-imperialists fighting the good fight against Western domination, but are rather themselves imperialists with the irredentist goal of unifying Muslim lands from western Africa to southeast Asia.


Their terrorism against the "near enemy" (insufficiently Islamic governments) and the "far enemy" (countries like the U.S. and France) is all in the pursuit of punishing those who frustrate their imperialist ambitions. Osama bin Laden made this point clear when he told the United States, "The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Islamic umma Shari'a law supreme [...]. Our fight against these governments is one with our fight against you."

A policy of non-intervention, while it might (for the time being) spare the West from random attacks on its civilians, is ultimately the wrong policy prescription. Letting groups like ISIS survive and expand is a threat not only to vague "Western interests," but to the lives, values, and political order of the entire modern world.

Can one honestly and seriously make the case, for instance, that the world should be indifferent as to whether the Kurdish militias succeed or fail in their courageous battles against ISIS, or that we should simply watch from the sky as ISIS massacres thousands of civilians trapped on a mountain?

Does it really make no moral or political difference as to whether the democratic experiment in Iraq succeeds or fails, or if theocratic barbarians rule over millions of people, knowing what awful human rights atrocities occur when ISIS takes over? Does the world truly believe that, once it has the freedom and capacity to do so, that ISIS will not continue to push its borders as it seeks its professed goal of scripturally mandated global hegemony?

The reasons for opposing ISIS are manifold. Foreign policy realists can get on board with this mission on the grounds that ISIS is a destabilizing force, and idealists and humanitarian interventionists can justify fighting ISIS by pointing to the massacres that ISIS has and will continue to perpetrate. Battling ISIS is therefore a clear case where our strategic interests and modern values coincide.

Yes, the West and its allies and partners will be targeted for thwarting ISIS's plans to entrench and expand the caliphate. Countries that oppose ISIS will be hated for it, but these countries should wear this hatred with pride, unite against this common civilizational enemy, and defeat ISIS – ideologically and militarily.

But victory against ISIS will not come until the world realizes that ISIS is genuinely Islamic and that its expansionist and supremacist religious ideology means that confrontation with it is inevitable. Mutual coexistence with ISIS is as undesirable as it is impossible. Let us learn this lesson sooner rather than later.